Church History: 1st Great Awakening

by Samuel Reed

Date 11-17-2014

Thesis: The Great Awakening was a time when people who were somewhat religious became very religious.  

  1. Movements against Orthodox Christianity.
  2. Deism
  3. Rationalism
  4. Revival in the colonies
  5. A departure from Orthodoxy to Deism and Rationalism.
  6. The effect of revivalism.
  7. Pietism
  8. The goal of Pietism was heartfelt religious devotion.
  9. Phillipp Jakob Spener
  10. John Wesley
  11. Jonathan Edwards
  12. Biography.
  13. Sinners in the hands of an angry God.
  14. George Whitefield
  15. Biography
  16. Head of the spear.
  17. Open-air preaching.
  18. Calvinism and Arminianism.
  19. Revivalism
  20. Whitefield, Benjamin Franklin, and a new nation.   

            The Great Awakening was a time when people who were somewhat religious became very religious. There were movements against Orthodox Christianity in Europe and in the Americas.  Lattorette said, “A set of movements which railed against Christianity was in the climate of opinion.”[1]  Those who were against Orthodox Christianity were those involved in Deism which was the philosophical work of men like Voltaire. Deism is a belief in the existence of a supreme creator being who does not involve himself into the affairs of the very thing he created.  For example Voltaire said, “God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.”[2]  Deists tried to base their understanding of this supreme being based on what they could rationally accept in order to improve their spirituality.

Rationalism was stressed by men like David Hume in his philosophical work.  The rationalist believes knowledge comes from personal experience through the use of his own logical understanding of the experience. Philosophical teachings like this had the effect of clergymen rejected any kind of emotionalism in an effort to be rational and even denied the Bible as literal history.  McLLvaine referred to these preachers as who have, “so much in common with the infidelity of what are known as the Deistical Writers…”[3]  Both Deists and Rationalists helped feed the move of some into Pietism.

Pietism was an effort to biblically reform those who had fallen prey to Deism and Rationalism.  The emphasis of Pietism was to return people to Bible study but also the faithful practice of the moral code taught there. Pietism wanted to see believers have personal renewal in their Christian life.  Philip Jacob Spener was a great leader of this movement and wrote Pia Desidena and was used to help transform both Reformed and Lutheran churches in the late 1600s. His idea of a “heart religion” over a “head religion” influenced men like John Wesley who is considered the leader of Methodism. John Wesley was an Anglican who was not satisfied with simply being a servant of God. As he studied the Book of Galations he saw fault in himself.  In his Explanatory Notes on Galations he basically explains he wanted to have the heart felt understanding that he was a son of God and therefore an heir.[4]  His Pietism led him to desire a more holy life but also convince others to do the same.

Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703 and died March 22, 1758.  He was a Calvinistic preacher who also recognized the need to have an active faith.  Not only should a person conduct themselves with piety but they should also show some emotion in worship to God.  He is accepted as one of the most important Christian leaders in America and certainly during the Great Awakening.  He took over his grandfather’s church in around 1729 but did not continue all of the doctrinal practices.  He believed the sacrament of Communion should not be open to everyone.  He believed in the Reformed practice of “fencing the table”.  That means only believers can carefully approach the table because everyone else would be drinking and eating condemnation upon themselves. The congregation disagreed and he moved on to another church.

Jonathan Edwards was driven to preach the gospel to the people of the growing colonies of the America’s.  He is probably best known for preaching the sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  He was a slow speaking methodical speaker but was not afraid to shock people with the hard truth of God’s wrath and the Calvinist position on predestination.  Elwell said, “Edwards provided a more systematic exposition of Augustinian and Calvinistic views in his many theological works.”[5]  Like Whitefield he was not afraid of some emotionalism but wanted to be very careful to not let the heart be the leader of the mind and soul.

George Whitefield was born December 27, 1714 and died September 30, 1770.  He was an Anglican that went to the North American colonies to preach in around 1740.  Like Wesley he was influenced by Pietism and was part of ‘the Holy club” which eventually became the Methodist denomination.  To describe him best one would call him an Evangelist, Revivalist, and Calvinist.  Although he preached the same way all Calvinists had preached up to this point he was a modern marvel in terms of his work during the Great Awakening.  He is what one could call the head of the spear because it was his preaching that electrified audiences.  In Georgia he preached sermons five times a week and had to turn people away in order to keep everyone safe.  This was even in open areas because he utilized open-air preaching.  This style of preaching was somehow not approved of by the establishment Church.  They felt the Gospel should only be taught in the sanctuary of a church building with the pastor using careful notes to ensure the purity of doctrine.  This is perfectly understandable because everyone who preaches must use caution when teaching the Word.  Whitefield apparently felt he was being careful with the Word but simply wanted to get it into the hands of the people were they were.  He and John Wesley did not always agree on doctrine such as the idea of free will.  Wesley was an Arminian and Whitefield was not.  Wesley was concerned that the doctrines of Calvinism was somehow going to discourage the growth of holiness in the people being preached to during the Great Awakening.  If people were eternally saved then somehow they would not work towards their responsibility of being holy as Christ is Holy.  Whitefield saw this as a misinterpretation of the eternal security of believing Christians.  The two men never ultimately agreed on the topic but maintained a working relationship to further the essentials of the Christian faith and fulfill the Great Commission. 

            Controversy of revivalism was that it seemed to encourage extreme emotionalism.  Churches split over the notion that too much emotionalism had snuck into the Church.  There was legitimate doubt regarding the actual conversion of people due to the emotional aspects of a revival. Thousands of people were supposedly saved during the Great Awakening but the movement only lasted a short time.  Elwell said it lasted from “1735-43”.[6]  On the positive side many people were most likely actually saved which helped improve the moral fabric of a developing nation.  People within the church recognized they could not be forced to stay under bad leadership within a particular church.  Missionary work grew as new converts witnessed to others from colony to colony.   A sense of liberty was being exhibited in Church as well as in society. 

            Whitefield also had a relationship with Benjamin Franklin who was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  Benjamin Franklin held to a type of works righteousness that Whitefield did not agree with but the two were still good friends.  Franklin highly respected George Whitefield and saw the Christianity he taught as the best example of what a Christian should be.  All of the virtues of a good Christian were exactly the good morals the new nation would need to become a society where liberty and justice was for all people.  One did not have to be tied to the religion of the state or bound to the local religion.  Various denominations were finding ways to live and let live the doctrines they each taught.  The religious Perish systems where slowly going away.  A person could establish a non-denominational Church without fear.  Whitefield supported Benjamin Franklin as he made appearances in the English Parliament regarding the tensions the colonies had against them.  Whitefield was good at making himself known in the political arena but was not trying to establish a government run Church.  He preached to the hearts and souls of the people demanding a response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Of all the men preaching the Gospel during the Great Awakening no one person equaled the effort and results of George Whitefield.  Through prayer and hard work he reached out to every person he could.  Clearly God was working by His Spirit in George Whitefield but also in the men and women he contacted.  God quickens the hearts and minds of people to hear the Gospel and He uses the preaching of the Word to do it.  At no time does it appear that George Whitefield took credit for the work of God even though he was a confident man.  Being a Calvinist he understood God must be at work in a movement such as the Great Awakening or it would miserably fail to achieve anything other than false converts.  At the same time he also understood the Calvinist teaching that man in responsible to do the work God demands of them.  Whitefield said, “There is not a thing on the face of the earth that I abhor so much as idleness or idle people.”  The work one should be doing was that of preaching Christ, “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”  If only a fraction of Christians felt the same way today and put their faith into action preaching the Word of God to their own families let alone their neighbors. George Whitefield inspired many during his lifetime to follow Christ with more passion and continues to do so to this very day.  God must have been at work in his ministry.       


Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Phillipsburg: P and R Publishing, 1932.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.

McLLvaine, Charles Pettit. Rationalism, as exhibited in the writings of certain clergymen of the Church. Cincinnati: C V Bradley, 1865.

Rapin, Betty Jane. Make the Divine Connection for a Spiritualized Consciousness. Xlibris Corporation, 2012.

Wesley, John. Nohn Wesley’s Notes on the Entire Bible. 1754.

[1] (Latourette 1953)

[2] (Rapin 2012, Ch. 24)

[3] (McLLvaine 1865, p. 14)

[4] (Wesley 1754)

[5] (Elwell 2001, p. 523)

[6] (Elwell 2001, p. 522)

Published by SReed

Attends Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I'm a sinner saved by the work of God in me and not a work of my own.

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